The sudden replacement of Biplab Deb and the appointment of Manik Saha as the new Chief Minister of the northeastern state of Tripura, where elections are around the corner, has created a political buzz. Though there have been allegations against Biplab in the last three years, the replacement of the former with Manik, who was recently elected to the Rajya Sabha, has been raising too many uncomfortable questions for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Manik’s Role as Party President Wasn’t Smooth
Professionally known as a dentist, Manik joined the BJP in the year 2016 and rose to the limelight when he was made the state party president in 2020 in place of Biplab, who was then handling the posts of both Chief Minister and party president. Despite the saffron party forming the government and Biplab becoming the Chief Minister in March 2018, he was allowed to simultaneously continue as the party president. When the time came to change the state president, Manik, a close confidant of Biplab, was nominated to the post.
This didn’t go well with a section of party leaders, who were unhappy with the appointment of a political novice to the post of state president. This resentment gradually increased with time. On one hand, there was a rebellion against the then-Chief Minister, Biplab, by the Sudip Roy Barman-led group, which had come from the Trinamool Congress to the BJP ahead of the 2018 state assembly polls. On the other hand, there was another uprising brewing within the party directed against the state president, Manik.
The rebellion intensified after the party lost the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections to the TIPRA Motha, a new regional party led by royal scion Pradyot Deb Barman. Even during the ADC poll strategy, the division in the party came to the fore.
The then-ST Morcha state president, Rebati Mohan, also the MP from the Tripura East Lok Sabha constituency, was against the alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura led by NC Debbarma, but the party went ahead with the alliance.
Although the party officially got nine seats – its best performance to date in the ADC – the results weren’t pleasing for the ruling party, while its ally, the IPFT (NC), drew a blank. Many BJP dissidents contested against the IPFT (NC); one dissident, Bhumika Nanda Reang, emerged victorious and later joined the saffron party. A few days ago, Rebati was removed from the president’s post of ST Morcha, and an inexperienced Bikash Debbarma was given his position.
After the party legislature meeting declared Manik Saha as the new legislature leader of the party, Ramprasad Paul, the state OBC Welfare Minister in Biplab’s Ministry after expansion, created a ruckus over the decision in the presence of central party leaders, including Union Minister Bhupendra Yadav. The video of the ruckus has been widely shared on social media, even by opposition parties.
This dissent is different as Ramprasad is an old-timer of the saffron party having associations with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the party’s ideological parent. Another MLA, Paritosh Debbarma, representing the Ambassa (ST) constituency, also expressed his displeasure for choosing Manik as the new Chief Minister.
This year, a section of old-timers of the party, including Ramprasad, had even written a letter to push for changing the party president. Before being part of the state cabinet, he even joined the rebel group led by Sudip to remove Biplab as Chief Minister. This year, he even organised a march at Agartala, which was indirectly aimed at the party president. Significantly, the then-Deputy Chief Minister, Jishnu Dev Verma, was also present. It is said that Ramprasad has been eyeing the post of the party president.
No Lessons Learnt?
There was a time when Congress was the dominant party of the state. Later, the grand old party’s dependence on the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS) to gain tribal votes only led to the decline of its tribal base. To date, the party hasn’t been able to recover from that fall, although it got a chance when Pradyot was the state president for a brief period.
The CPI(M) didn’t go the Congress way and relied on its tribal wing, the Gana Mukti Parishad, to conquer the crucial tribal belt, considered a key to gaining state power. This was also one of the main reasons for the 35-year-long rule (first from 1978 to 1988 and second from 1993 to 2018) of the CPI(M) in this northeastern state. However, later, the Left party ignored its own tribal leaders as both the Chief Minister and party general secretary posts were occupied by leaders from the Bengali community. This also resulted in the decline of the party in the tribal belt, in addition to the rising anti-incumbency factor.
It’s a well-known fact that the saffron party is weak in the tribal belt, which is currently dominated by TIPRA Motha. The party had the option to choose a tribal face to counter Pradyot’s challenge. Among the frontrunners from the tribal community was none other than Jishnu Dev Verma, who was made the Deputy Chief Minister to balance the state’s Bengali-tribal ethnic equations.
Firstly, the BJP made a mistake in allying with the IPFT(NC) last year in the ADC polls despite a section opposing it. Secondly, it had the option to make a tribal leader the Chief Minister of the state. To counter Pradyot, the party made the Tripura People’s Front leader, Patal Kanya Jamatia, the vice-president of the party.
Nevertheless, the saffron party had the option to nominate Jishnu, who also has a clean image and is known for taking others on board. This definitely would have strengthened the BJP in countering the TIPRA Motha in the tribal belt. To date, the state had only tribal Chief Minister — Dasarath Deb one of the founders of the communist movement in the state. Notably, Jishnu also belongs to the state’s royal family. Certainly, the party missed the bus this time.
The BJP Leadership Has Taken a Big Risk
The fact is that the central leadership has definitely taken a risk in choosing Manik Saha as the new Chief Minister. It’s true that Saha has a very clean image, but politically, even in his own party, many aren’t satisfied with his role as the party president. It will also be interesting to see whom the party nominates for the next state president.
None can deny that the removal of Biplab Deb as Chief Minister definitely has given ammunition to the Opposition as it’s an indirect acknowledgement that there were drawbacks in the functioning of the state government. Currently, the only major relief for the saffron party is that it has an advantage in the plains as the Opposition remains organisationally weak and divided. Will this risk taken by the central leadership help the party? Or, will it further increase the internal discontent? Only time will tell.
(Sagarneel Sinha is a political commentator. He tweets @SagarneelSinha. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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